The contractor – standing in the driving coastal rain and barely-audible over the din of the blue Vietnam Airlines jet taxiing a stone’s throw away on the new Danang airport runaway – asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to discuss sensitive material, but said that the contaminated soil would be excavated to a temporary mound 8 meters high by 70 meters wide by 100 meters long, and in turn baked to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, a procedure intended to break down the dioxin into carbon dioxide, water and chloride.
The Danang clean-up is a joint project of the Vietnamese Defense Ministry and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that began in August of this year, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that her government would assist with the clean-up during a visit to Hanoi in the summer of 2010, amid tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam, in turn prompting closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam.
Chuck Searcy came back to Vietnam 17 years ago, 3 years before the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations. He eventually stayed on in the one-time enemy terrain to work for the Veterans Memorial Fund, which cleans up unexploded ordnances from the war in central Vietnam. Speaking in Hanoi over a morning coffee, not far from the old Hanoi Hilton where Republican Senator John McCain was detained for five years as a prisoner of war, he recalls in sonorous Morgan Freeman-like tones that “when Agent Orange was used in Vietnam we were told it was harmless, that it was just a pesticide, and we believed that.”
For decades the U.S. government disputed the link between Agent Orange and birth defects in Vietnamese children, but that opposition appears to have relented, the Vietnam War veteran tells me.
Now things are changing, he says, acknowledging that “the U.S. government finally is doing the right thing, maybe not enough, but at least it is helping American veterans. We ought to be doing the same thing in cooperation with the Vietnamese people. That is late in the day, but is finally starting now too.”
Washington’s “Asia Pivot” will be in full focus this week, as newly-reelected President Obama visits Southeast Asia, with stops in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. While in Cambodia Obama will participate in the East Asia Summit, where he will meet leaders from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia as well as his Southeast Asian counterparts.
For its part, the Vietnamese government provides a monthly stipend of about U.S. $17 to more than 200,000 Vietnamese who are believed to be affected by the toxic herbicides. Although the program costs the Vietnamese government around U.S. $40 million annually, the stipend isn’t much for those receiving it, and doesn’t go far.
“We would not be able to manage having him at home,” says Nguyen Thu Thon, mother of Nguyen Viet Hai, age 24, who stays at the center. “We cannot afford to hire care for him and we need to work ourselves to make ends meet, and he cannot be left alone by himself.
Currently based in southeast Asia, Simon Roughneen has written for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, South China Morning Post, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, Sunday Business Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported on RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, Voice of America, al-Jazeera.